Fasting and Sex


   The effects of fasting upon the sexual functions are variable. The examples of the salmon and the Alaskan fur seal bull were given in a previous chapter. In dealing with the effects of fasting on the higher invertebrates, Jackson tells us that "the gonads themselves are usually very resistant to starvation, being (like the nervous system) as a rule among the last of the organs to undergo involution. There are, however, evident variations in different species and individuals."--Inanition and Malnutrition, p. 28.

   Fasting often restores sexual reproduction, bringing back the male, in organisms that, with abundant food supplies, reproduce asexually or parthenogenetically. The restoration of the male in parthenogenetically reproducing forms is but one example of many that fasting may prove beneficial to the sex function.

   Surfeit seems to be antagonistic to highest genetic purposes and fasting becomes necessary as a means of assisting at least, towards a re-establishment of a tolerable degree of domestic (organic) symbiosis. Asexual reproduction in lower forms is associated with surfeit and the introduction of the sexual link in the alternate sexual-asexual reproduction of these forms, is in all cases, dependent on a previous reduction of the nutritive overflow, the overfed asexual units, or "nurses," being incapable of the physiological labor required by sexual reproduction. Alternation of generation is, in fact, the result of changing nutritive conditions. Asexual generation is the expression of excess or antisymbiotic nutritive conditions, while sexual generation is conditioned upon a normal metabolic rate growing out of strenuousness and moderation. Thousands of studies and experiments by biologists show unmistakably that nutritive redundancy is the necessary condition of the overgrowth which makes asexual reproduction possible and interferes with sexual reproduction, while a reduction of the nutritive overflow and a return to legitimate nutrition restores sexual normality.

   In hibernation the ovaries and testes undergo certain changes in size, structure and function. The testicles of the frog are largest in August, smallest in the spring. Nussbaum observed growth in the sex glands of fasting frogs. Male frogs, immediately upon resuming activities in the Spring, this is to say, at the end of hibernation, take on distinguishing seasonal marks, as brighter colors, swollen forefinger, or some unusual feature. The females lay their eggs and the males fertilize them soon after they emerge from hibernation.

   While these changes in color and structure and the reproductive activity seen in frogs follow immediately upon the ending of hibernation, with its prolonged period of abstinence from food, they must have been prepared for during the period of fasting. The fact that reproduction follows so closely upon the period of abstinence, even, in the more northerly latitudes, after prolonged fasting, indicates that fasting has no ill effect upon the reproductive function.

   No specific changes in the sex glands of the hibernating gopher are found. In the hibernating marmot no sperm cells are produced. Cyclic changes are observed in the interstitial cells of the ovaries and testicles of the hibernating woodchuck which undergo gradual enlargement during this period.

   Enforced fasting in non-hibernating animals also produces variable results similar to those seen in hibernation. Where losses and changes occur in the ovaries and testes in starvation they are about the same as those that occur in these structures in hibernation. In general, the testicles lose more rapidly than the body as a whole, the production of sperm cells is greatly diminished or ceases altogether; rapid gains upon resumption of feeding, which often lag behind the general systemic gains, but early restoration of normal function, is the rule. This is the general rule in the ovaries also.

   In fasting male salmon and certain other animals the testicles greatly enlarge during the seasonal fasting period. The ovaries of fasting salmon also enlarge. In the frog, as in the salmon, part of its muscles are sacrificed to serve as material in the development of the sex glands. "These are conspicuous examples of dystrophic growth changes during adult inanition, certain portions of the body growing at the expense of others, as occurs generally during chronic inanition in young organisms."

   Scientists say that the "mystery of this starvation during reproduction" is all the greater because "maturity is delayed and sexual activity usually decreases during periods of famine." That food scarcity generally occasions a reduction in sexual activity is true enough, but then, so do certain types of overfeeding. It may well be that fasting becomes necessary in certain over-indulgent animals in order to restore sexual potency and reproductive capacity.

   Fasting accelerates the normal process of metamorphosis in tadpoles--indeed, the tadpoles of some frogs normally cease to eat at a certain stage in their development, and develop their legs at the expense of their tails. A similar "physiological inanition" is seen at certain stages of the metamorphosis of insects. These present numerous examples of dystrophic growth changes during fasting. Jackson found an increase of 22 per cent in the ovaries of adult albino rats subjected to acute inanition until they had lost 33 per cent in body weight.

   Jackson says: "Morgulis, Howe and Hawk found no apparent abnormality in the ovaries of a dog as a result of protracted inanition. Ova were present in all stages of normal development."--Inanition and Malnutrition, p. 395.

   It has been found that the cells lining the seminiferous tubules in the testicles which give rise to germ cells, preserve their normal character for the longest period of time when no food is taken and undergo degenerative changes only during the starvation period. Even then, parts of these structures remain entirely normal. In the unaffected areas Simonowitch found the seminiferous tubules of starved rabbits and guinea pigs to be filled with living spermatozoa. In fasting dogs Loisel found that spermatogenesis ceases. Grandis found that no spermatozoa are produced in pigeons during inanition, although already formed spermatozoa may continue to grow. He found however that the spermatozoa in the tubules usually die.

   In some forms the embryo tends to develop at the expense of the maternal organism; in others the eggs or embryo are absorbed by the maternal body and utilized as food.

   Both male and female organs are enabled to heal and repair themselves during a fast. Menstruation is often brought on a week or two weeks ahead of the regular time. After this it usually ceases altogether. Disorders of ovulation yield quite rapidly to the kindly influence of fasting.

   Sexual desire must vary as much as the previously noted changes. The male goose (gander) loses about one-fourth in body weight during the period just preceding and at the breeding season. There is a concomitant awakening of the sex instinct. This is similar to what is seen in the salmon and the seal. Other animals soon discontinue all sexual activity if forced to go without food.

   There seems to have been no actual studies made of the effects of fasting and starvation, as distinct from malnutrition and its many causes, upon the human ovary and testicle. Noting ovarian and testicular changes in all human cachexias certainly is a far cry from the effects of fasting. These studies of "inanition" are not separated from pathology due to many causes.

   Carrington found that all the fasters he questioned said that sexual intercourse during a prolonged fast becomes a practical impossibility "after the first few days." As he points out this "impotency" is merely a temporary suspension of the sexual function, for "the function returns, in its full vigor and force, together with hunger." He points out that this lack of sexual vigor is almost invariably present, irrespective of the vigor of the faster, which may be increased, but that sexual vigor returns together with hunger and before any food has been ingested. It is true, as he points out, that many cases of impotency of years' standing, and female sterility, are frequently remedied by fasting.

   That fasting, usually, in such instances reduces or abolishes sexual desire and sexual power in men and women is certain. That this is only temporary is equally certain. On the other hand, some fasters, continue to indulge sexually during the fast while nocturnal emissions are occasionally seen in men, even in advanced fasting. I have made no effort to determine the presence or absence of spermatozoa in such instances.

   Reduced or absent sexual desire and relative sterility form the rule in fasting men and women, but this is by no means an invariable rule. Mr. Johnson, whose fast will be mentioned later, was neither impotent nor sterile during a forty days' fast I supervised for him. One of my women patients was annoyed as much by sexual desire while fasting as while eating. Another was so annoyed by such desire, we were forced to break the fast. Desire ceased after eating was resumed.

   Tolstoy pointed out the close connection between idleness and gluttony and unchastity and recommended fasting as a means of controlling strong sexual passions. This should be understood to mean that fasting is to be employed to aid in removing the surfeit that is responsible for the abnormal sexual desire that is a common result of nutritive redundancy, not that fasting should be employed to suppress normal sexual urges. Fasting should not be looked upon as a means of conquering human nature--it is no ascetic program that Hygienists offer the world.

   While it seems to be the rule for impotency to develop during a prolonged fast, the sexual powers return with full, even renewed, vigor with the resumption of eating, often even with the return of hunger. Sometimes there is a brief delay in their return. One elderly patient of mine, who had been impotent for years, quickly regained virility after a fast of thirty-one days. Another case of impotency of several years duration regained potency after only a short fast.

   We have previously pointed out that there are many animals, of which the male salmon and Alaskan fur seal bull are outstanding examples, that fast throughout the whole of the mating season with no impairment of sexual vigor and fecundity. Indeed, fasting often restores sexual reproduction, bringing back the male in organisms that, with abundant food supplies, reproduce asexually or partheno-genetically. Sexual activity among fur seals is confined to the fasting period. The Adelie penguins fast during the breeding period and Prof. J. A. Thomson says many other examples occur among animals. Love seems also to diminish the desire for food in boys and girls.

   The fear of permanent sterility in females, from fasting, fostered in laboratory works on this subject, is unfounded. The fact is that we frequently see previously sterile women conceive shortly after a fast, even a lengthy one. One of my patients, unable to conceive for several years, conceived shortly after a fast of forty days' duration. Her baby was normal in every way and presented none of the abnormalities against which we are warned. Another, married ten years with no conception during this time, conceived shortly after a fast of ten days. A third patient conceived at her first intercourse two weeks after a fast of thirty days. This woman had not been previously sterile.